Even With Flames Abroad, Biden Keeps One Eye on the Home Front


Less than 24 hours after condemning terrorism in the Middle East in one of the most powerful speeches of his tenure on Tuesday, President Biden was back before television cameras for another statement.

This time, he was introduced not as the commander in chief of the world’s leading superpower in a time of international crisis, but as “the man who has made tackling junk fees a priority for all Americans.”

Even as missiles were flying in Gaza and bodies were being recovered in Israel, Mr. Biden was waging war on hidden charges that airlines, banks, concert ticket sellers and other retailers impose on consumers. Through the moral authority of the bully pulpit and the legal authority of government regulatory agencies, the president vowed to protect Americans from exploitation.

Incongruous as it may have seemed, the decision by the White House to keep pushing its economic agenda amid the overseas tumult this week reflects a hard calculation informed by politics and history. While cable television offers round-the-clock coverage from places like Sderot and Kfar Aza, Mr. Biden’s strategists assume that voters in places like Philadelphia and Pueblo, Colo., will decide whether to give him a second term based more on pocketbook issues than the state of the world.

It is the conundrum of a foreign policy president in a domestic policy environment. At times like these, Mr. Biden spends more of his typical day on matters thousands of miles away, especially the war in Ukraine and now the war in the Middle East. But his message to constituents has remained focused on matters he believes are more directly of concern to their lives at a time when polls show most voters do not approve of his economic stewardship.

In addition to the junk fee event in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, Mr. Biden met at the White House on Thursday with corporate executives to talk about his economic policies. He plans to fly to Pennsylvania on Friday to deliver a speech about creating jobs and transitioning to a clean energy future, to be followed by a similar trip to Colorado on Monday.

“President Biden doesn’t need to be reminded about the importance of domestic policy,” said Jon Meacham, a presidential historian who has helped form some of Mr. Biden’s signature speeches. “He knows that presidencies aren’t single-front undertakings but are at least two-front wars: the work at home and the protection of our interests abroad — and, of course, the two are often interconnected.”

Mr. Meacham cited Franklin D. Roosevelt confronting the Depression at home and the rise of fascism in Europe, Dwight D. Eisenhower grappling with integration in Little Rock, Ark., and the Sputnik challenge from the Soviets and John F. Kennedy dealing with clashes over civil rights in the South and the missile crisis in Cuba.

But the experience of a more recent president demonstrated the hazards of being seen as too focused on the outside world. George H.W. Bush successfully managed the end of the Cold War and the prosecution of the Persian Gulf war of 1991, but lost re-election in 1992 when voters thought he was not paying enough attention to a recession afflicting them.

Mr. Meacham, author of “Destiny and Power,” a biography of Mr. Bush, said he did not need to raise that example with Mr. Biden, and White House aides likewise said they had not heard the current president cite the lessons of three decades ago. Mr. Biden has been around long enough and seen enough polls to understand intuitively, they said.

“Being president means tackling issues that are top of mind for hardworking Americans — like lowering costs — while also responding swiftly and forcefully when crisis strikes at home and abroad,” said Ben LaBolt, the White House communications director. “President Biden leads by addressing this cascade of priorities every day.”

Glen Bolger, a Republican strategist, criticized Mr. Biden’s foreign policy, which he said had helped create many of the problems overseas rather than solve them. But he added that “politically his team is smart to keep their eye on the ball of domestic issues.”

After all, he said, that will determine the fate of Mr. Biden’s presidency. “In the fall of 2024, if the world is still in chaos but the economy is fine, he could win re-election,” Mr. Bolger said. “But if voter perceptions of the economy remain grim, even if peace breaks out in the rest of the world, that won’t matter and Biden will lose.”

As it happens, no president since the elder Mr. Bush has come to the White House with more experience and more passion for international affairs than Mr. Biden, who was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before serving eight years as vice president. He has known many of the major players on the world stage for a long time, including a 40-year relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.

From Saturday, when Hamas opened its devastating assault on Israel, through Wednesday, when Mr. Biden spoke about junk fees, the president participated in 47 phone calls, national security meetings, videoconferences and public statements related to the conflict, according to a White House count.

But his aides said they did not seriously consider canceling or postponing the roster of domestic events set for the week. While such events may not penetrate the wall-to-wall television coverage trained on the Middle East, White House officials and Mr. Biden’s allies said they draw plenty of attention in local markets and consumer outlets.

“Issues like junk fees are related to the very real economic pain that people feel in their family budgets every day, and it’s a tangible issue he can actually do something about,” said Adam Green, a founder of the Progressive Change Institute, an advocacy organization. “It’s smart that he’s keeping that going even when there are other global dynamics that are pressing in the world.”

Mr. Green’s group has been working with Mr. Biden’s team for months organizing events and promoting policies to combat junk fees. His group has shown the White House polling data demonstrating that while such policies are popular, many voters have not heard Mr. Biden talk about them. In one survey provided to the White House, 85 percent of Americans supported preventing corporations from charging junk fees but only 16 percent said they had heard Mr. Biden talk about the issue.

The president tried to correct that with this week’s event in the Rose Garden. He was introduced by a woman who recounted how a family vacation was spoiled when a hotel slapped an extra $100 on the bill beyond the advertised price.

Mr. Biden expressed outrage on her behalf. “Folks are tired of being taken advantage of and being played for suckers,” he said.

The president said that his administration had already secured voluntary changes by companies and cited 10 airlines that no longer impose change fees and banks that have eliminated bounced check charges.

But he announced what he called “our most comprehensive action ever to eliminate junk fees.” The Federal Trade Commission will require companies to show consumers the full, everything-included price upfront. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau plans to ban bank fees for basic services like checking a balance or retrieving old records while requiring banks to make it easier for customers to switch banks.

Hoping to connect with everyday voters, Mr. Biden cited his own upbringing in Pennsylvania and Delaware. “These junk fees can add up to hundreds of dollars, weighing down family budgets and making it harder to pay family bills,” Mr. Biden said. “These junk fees may not matter to the wealthy, but they sure matter to working folks in homes like the one I grew up in.”


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